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INTERVIEW: Rick Shiomi and Martha Johnson on Being Caught in the Theatre

Lin Bo and Erika Kuhn in Full Circle Theater’s upcoming production of Caught by Christopher Chen. Photo by LKBachman.

Christopher Chen’s play Caught opens at the Guthrie Theater on Saturday, May 18. This play pulls the audience into the world of an art exhibition-in-progress featuring work by a political dissident from China. This production by the Twin Cities-based Full Circle Theater reunites Chen’s darkly comedic script with local theatremaker Rick Shiomi, who directed the play’s 2014 world premiere in Philadelphia. Shiomi and his assistant director Martha Johnson spoke with the Arts Reader’s Basil Considine about returning to and staging this play.

Official Synopsis

An art gallery hosts a retrospective of the work of a legendary Chinese dissident artist who was imprisoned in a Chinese detention center for a single work of art. Recently profiled in The New Yorker, the artist himself is present, and shares with patrons the details of an ordeal that defies belief. A labyrinthine exploration of truth, art, social justice and cultural appropriation, where nothing is as it first appears.

When and how did you first encounter Christopher Chen’s work?

Director Rick Shiomi. Photo by Lia Chang.

RS: I first read Caught in the spring of 2014 when it was sent to me by Seth Rozin of InterAct Theatre in Philadelphia. Chris had submitted it to InterAct and Seth asked for my opinion. I loved it straight off and Seth asked me to direct the world premiere production of it in Oct 2014. (However, as an aside, I had met Chris a few years earlier when Theater Mu did a reading of one of his plays, By the Numbers. I recognized then that Chris was someone ready to take on difficult topics with style)

MJ: I first encountered Chris Chen’s work standing in our kitchen (Rick and I are life, as well as artistic, partners), hearing Rick’s loud laughter coming from his nearby office. I walked in and asked him what was up, and he told me he was reading a brilliant, hilarious play, called Caught, by Christopher Chen. I’d never heard Rick laugh like that reading a play for the first time, so I was really intrigued.

The show blurb on your company’s website describes this show in part as an “irreverent, new, genre-bending piece”. What are some of the ways in which this piece is genre-bending?

RS: Well, the play begins with the audience entering onto the stage and taking in a visual art exhibition of a Chinese dissident artist. And we’ll have docents present to engage with audience members about the artwork. Then the artist himself enters to give a TED talk like description of his experiences as a dissident artist in China. That is followed by a more typical theater scene where the artist meets with a young reporter and her editor as the New Yorker offices. The play keeps presenting itself in different formats and changing the audience’s framework of perception.

MJ: Both in Caught’s production methods and in its language, dialogue, and monologue content, Chen is bending and confounding the normal boundaries and definitions of visual art, theater, acting, monologuing, public speaking, performance art, journalism, political speech, etc.

A promotional image for Caught.

New plays are often somewhat fluid in-between rehearsals for the premiere and a second production. Has this work changed significantly in the time between when you first directed it and now? What about how you approach it?

RS: Though our production is an area premiere, the play has been produced many times since 2014. It has not changed much in terms of text but the newer version has one actor doubling for two characters. But I have preferred to involve two actors, so our cast is five plus three docents.

How have the two of you elected to divide up the directing duties?

RS: We have worked together a lot over the past twenty-something years. Sometimes with one directing and the other assistant directing, or more informally assisting. However, we have rarely actually co-directed!

In each case, the assistant director provides key insights and support for the director within the framework of the director’s vision and process. Without the pressure of getting the production up, the assistant director often has a much fresher perspective on the work in progress and can provide side coaching or feedback notes that help the director deal with the challenges of the production. We often joke that we both prefer to be the assistant director!

Assistant Director Martha Johnson. Photo by Stephen A. Geffre.
Assistant Director Martha Johnson. Photo by Stephen A. Geffre.
MJ: As we’re not co-directors for the production but rather director and assistant director, Rick has the lion’s share of the director’s duties for Caught, and I’m his assistant. Most of my work is offering Rick and the cast my insights into the script during table-work and during the 4-5 week progression of rehearsals to carry out the play’s staging. I also offer my insights and suggestions for blocking, pacing, actors’ physical, vocal, and psychological interpretations of the script. I often take copious directorial notes during the rehearsals I attend to offer my ideas to Rick then next day for his consideration.

One specific duty I’ve taken on is to facilitate and organize the use of docents in Caught’s onstage art exhibit.

Was the art in the opening exhibition specially created for Caught, or collected from other sources?

RS: The art exhibition was created specifically for Caught.

With a cast of just four actors required by the script to juggle and the two of you, what did the rehearsal planning process look like?

MJ: We actually have 5 principal roles/actors, with 2 principal role understudies; plus 4 actors who are docents for the onstage art exhibit. Again, Rick has the lion’s share of responsibility for the principal actors, while I have taken the lead on the docent characters.

RS: The rehearsal process is pretty straight forward with the assistant director coming only to selected sessions in order to keep their fresh perspective. We do some doubling up of work but the key role is to give feedback on how the play is working.

What process led to this show being prepared to run in the Guthrie Theater’s Dowling Studio?

RS: We were looking for a space that would allow the audience easy access to the stage to view the art exhibition before getting to their seats. Secondly, we had produced the play Under This Roof the previous year and consider the production arrangement with the Guthrie perfect for our company needs at this time.

MJ: Rick and I have been deeply involved in this process, both as director and assistant director of Caught, but also as Co-Artistic Directors of Full Circle Theater Company. We began communicating and coordinating with Michael Perlman, the Associate Producer of the Guthrie Dowling Studio, last fall. He then set up a several-hour January meeting at the Guthrie between Full Circle staff and Guthrie’s accessibility, box office, community engagement, marketing, and production staff. We’ve been in close communication with Michael and these staff members ever since.

The Dowling Studio is a flexible space, with many different configurations that are used – how have you chosen to use the space and why?

RS: We’re using it in the basic proscenium arrangement but without a raised stage, we can funnel the audience from the north side door through the art exhibition on the stage before they take their seats. (the usual entrance is from the door on the south side) And with some panels being movable, we are using various configurations of the panels to create different spaces.

Playwright Christopher Chen lists cultural appropriation and social justice as some of the areas explored in this play – and also promises, “nothing is as it first appears”. Today’s society has a lot of snap judgments where things turn out to not be as simple as they first appear or are reported – what kind of journey is the audience in for?

RS: The audience should strap on their seat belts, because it’s going to be a wild ride where things never turn out as simple as one might think. Chris is an intellectually brilliant writer who can cleverly upend what we come to believe in each scene with a change of context in the next. In what I like to describe as tortuously funny scenes, Chris slowly strips away the very reality he has built for us to believe in and replaces it with another situation completely.

MJ: They are in for a thrilling roller coaster ride intensely exploring all these issues! This ride will be powerfully moving, and then funny, and then painful, and touching, and then hilarious, and then joyous, and on and on.

I’ve never seen a play that accomplishes all these things as it explores the most serious issues of our day – and in such a unique and constantly surprising way.

Where is the company rehearsing?

RS: The company has rehearsed at several locations including The Playwright’s Center, Ragamala Dance Studios, and East Side Freedom Library.

What’s an upcoming show that you’re not involved with that you’re excited to see? Why?

MJ: We’re looking forward to seeing The Brothers Paranormal being produced by Theater Mu and Penumbra Theatre.  We of course love Mu and Penumbra and are very interested in the writing of Prince Gomolvilas.

Caught runs May 17-June 2 at the Guthrie Theater’s Dowling Studio in Minneapolis, MN.

Basil Considine